CONDUCTOR SHMUEL ELBAZ brings a wealth of cross- cultural experience to ‘Scheherazade.’ (photo credit: NATHAN YAKOBOVITCH)
CONDUCTOR SHMUEL ELBAZ brings a wealth of cross- cultural experience to ‘Scheherazade.’ (photo credit: NATHAN YAKOBOVITCH)
Mawwal Baladi Festival looks to bring spirit of East to Jerusalem

Since the world music genre burst into iridescent life almost four decades ago, there have been seemingly infinite synergies between artists of ostensibly disparate cultural backgrounds and disciplines.

Over here, the main avenue of collaborative attack has, in loose terms, addressed bridging the East-West divide. Considering that the vast majority of Israelis hail, at some stage or other, from those geographical and cultural hemispheres, that makes perfect sense. It has also led to numerous artistic joint projects, with artists, bands and ensembles venturing ever deeper into the fabric and sounds of genres, subgenres and styles from practically all points on the world map and the creative scale.

However, it is unlikely that many of us have come across something quite like the Scheherazade concert that opens the second annual Mawwal Baladi Festival, which takes place at the Jerusalem Theater, under the aegis of the Museum for Islamic Art, December 13-16.

What is the Mawwal Baladi Festival in Jerusalem?

The festival is the brainchild of museum events and marketing manager Avishai Yarkoni, with internationally renowned oud player and violinist Yair Dalal serving as artistic director. Dalal has gone for programming broke with a four-day bill that takes in music from Samaritan, Sufi, Galilean, Iraqi, Western and Arabic classical climes, with some rural Arabic material thrown in for good measure.

 THE SHAHAN Orchestra adds Eastern seasoning to Russian harmonies. (credit: ROY MIZ) THE SHAHAN Orchestra adds Eastern seasoning to Russian harmonies. (credit: ROY MIZ)

THE FESTIVAL curtain-raiser (December 13, 8:30 p.m.) proffers the enduringly popular work by late-19th-century Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who had a tendency to dip into the realms of fairy tales and folklore for his base material. Scheherazade, one of his best-known creations, feeds off the One Thousand and One Nights – aka Arabian Nights – collection of Middle Eastern folktales compiled across the centuries of the Islamic Golden Age, which roughly spanned the 8th to 14th centuries.

The narrative offered Rimsky-Korsakov rich pickings, with the story line taking us across multiple domains as the eponymous maiden managed to stymie the sultan’s plan to have her executed by keeping him riveted with hundreds of enchanting stories.

When the composer got down to writing the piece, Russia was not too hot on political correctness and, as was the case across the Western world as a whole, the general perspective on the East followed a shallow, stylized, and often patronizing Orientalist approach.

SHMUEL ELBAZ admits he wasn’t enamored with the Rimsky-Korsakov work from the outset, although that was more down to structure and form rather than a matter of respect for other ways of life.

“It took me a long while to get to like it,” says Elbaz.

Presumably, as he will be on the conductor’s podium for the festival opener, ensuring that the members of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra keep time and imbue the score with the requisite textures, colors and emotive content, he has gotten over those initial qualms.

“I am not so enthusiastic about programmatic music. I don’t like it when music is based on a sort of script, and you are told to do this or that,” he says.

Elbaz, who is probably better known as a mandolin player with an impressively expansive repertoire, together with Dalal and various other musical souls, found a way through the disciplinary minefield by infusing the Russian original with some sumptuous sounds and rhythms from the right part of the world. The solution was found in the form of the Shahan Orchestra, which specializes in Persian music. As the regal character in One Thousand and One Nights is said to hail from Persia, that fits the narrative bill nicely.

Still, marrying the efforts of a Western classical orchestra with the artistic take of a Middle Eastern troupe can be far easier said than done, even after all these years of world music evolution and the openness that might be expected to offer.

That, Elbaz suggests, is not helped by the way the Russian composer went about his writing business. “It is not that he really researched the Eastern spirit and created something with those sensibilities. This is a Western classical work, like a Tchaikovsky symphony, with all those rich Russian harmonies.” Indeed, harmonic material is anathema to the Eastern musical way of thinking.

With that in mind, it must have been quite a challenge to achieve a seamless interface between the Rimsky-Korsakov chart and the contributions from the Persian music ensemble.

“This is a large group, led by [percussionist-vocalist] Eitan Refua, with 12 musicians,” Elbaz says. “You need to utilize their sound, the tones they produce, and not to form some sort of artificial synthesis. You have to identify a bond between the two works. That’s the challenge.”

Yet there are hooks along the way that helped to guide Elbaz and his colleagues through the labyrinth of textures, rhythms and scales that come from very different worlds and contrasting philosophies. “There are subjects, leitmotifs, that were written into the score by Rimsky-Korsakov. There is, for example, the figure of the sultan, and there is Scheherazade herself.” That helps to point the way for Refua et al. “They join in there and bring their sound into it. They sort of illuminate the characters with the appropriate colors. It is almost as if they bring the right traditional costumes to the scenes.” Sounds a little like an animation approach.

Elbaz clearly had to keep an open mind in interpreting the original composition and to allow his siblings in creative arms to express themselves and spice up the proceedings with some authentic flavors. In contrast with the late-19th-century Orientalist mindset, this was a matter of allowing the core zeitgeist to come through without Western colonialist dictates getting in the way. “There are places in the work where I open things up and allow the ensemble to come in with original [Persian] material. I open up parentheses, as it were, and introduce the original authentic sound.”

Anyone who is familiar with the Russian work – presumably, that will account for a good slice of Tuesday evening’s patrons – will have to leave generous room for imaginative maneuver and allow the non-Western sounds to mingle freely with the popular symphonic suite lines. “The Shahan parts will, of course, be very different from Scheherazade, but they will add other interest and colors. That is very important.”

Indeed, the score is the baseline for any concert venture. However, as any conductor or creative instrumentalist or vocalist will tell you, spirit and emotional expression are where the real artistic and entertainment value lies.

An undertaking of this scale and, particularly, breadth requires not only top-grade musicianship, experience and artistic acumen. Input from varying quarters can also help to shed light on some of the nooks and crannies that may not be readily apparent to everyone involved in putting the onstage proceedings together.

“There is a passage that Yair Dalal wrote and sent to me, and I worked on it with an arranger,” Elbaz explains. “And Eitan [Refua] worked on something else with another arranger, and they sent me a rough draft to work on.”

It was, as Elbaz noted earlier, very much a matter of arriving at an organic end product that embraced all the fundamental ingredients and conveyed them in a presentable, lucid and fluid manner. “We were all in this together. I wanted to make sure that the orchestration was effective. I didn’t want it to feel disjointed, like a Western work with Eastern elements slotted in. It had to work as a whole.”

There was much discussion, and to-ing and fro-ing, before the conductor and backroom teammates felt they had got it right. “We all got on with it, double-checked each other’s work, and we eventually arrived at something we all agree would work.”

That said, there were still technicalities that needed to be addressed in order to make the onstage execution a practical reality.

“There is, for example, a scale I chose which was not comfortable for the [Shahan] ensemble. Their instruments are tuned to working with maqamat,” Elbaz explains, referencing the modular musical system on which Arabic and other Eastern music is based. “Not every [Western] scale is easy to play. We solved that by having the ensemble players tune their strings down by a semitone, so that when they play a scale that is comfortable for them, it suits the scale of Scheherazade.

“We had to be pretty creative to find solutions for these kinds of things. We didn’t want Shahan players to break their fingers trying to get to the right notes,” he chuckles. “It is like asking a Western music instrumentalist to play a scale with seven flats. That’s not comfortable at all.”

Clearly, some pondering outside the box was the order of the day, which, when you think about it, suits the titular-thematic intent to a tee. In Arabic music, the mawwal serves as a preface to the main musical course. It often imparts a sentimental or melancholic feeling and is basically improvisatory in nature.

ELBAZ HAS a proven track record of juggling musical balls of differing ilks and keeping them harmoniously airborne at the same time.

“I have a lot of experience in this,” he notes. “I did lots of this sort of thing when I worked with the Israel Andalusian Orchestra.” That was a 13-year stint as musical director and principal conductor. “We were always doing cooperative projects with all kinds of groups and ensembles. They were always fusions. You get used to handling different musical approaches, and you learn how to get them to work well, how to arrive at a meeting point.”

That augurs well for Tuesday’s concert, not just in terms of how the stratified score sits with musicians from very different disciplinary quarters but also what the paying customer gets on the day.

“I don’t like to get too philosophical about it all,” says Elbaz. “I like to look at the practicalities, to find solutions and to consider the overview. I am always concerned about the audience getting something complete. I don’t want the audience to hear something that is a bunch of fragments pieced together. It should be a program with a climax. Like an orator. They don’t start a speech shouting. They build up to it. They use intonation and pathos. The energy level develops.”

“The people will get a different rendition, with the riches of Western classical music and the aesthetics and tonality of the East. We want to present them both in their finest forms.”

Shmuel Elbaz

Elbaz says a new listening experience is in store for the Jerusalem Theater crowd. “The people will get a different rendition, with the riches of Western classical music and the aesthetics and tonality of the East. We want to present them both in their finest forms.”

One wonders what Rimsky-Korsakov might have made of all this. And there is plenty more for us to get our teeth and ears into in the Mawwal Baladi, with the likes of Yaron Peer marrying Psalms texts and music with Qawwali music from India and Pakistan; an intriguing interface with the sounds of the desert and Samaritan traditions courtesy of Sophie Zedaka, Rachela and Sharon Ben Zadok; and folk wedding fare from rustic Arabic traditions. ❖

For tickets and more information: (02) 566-1291 and

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